Small Towns, Rural Living, and Dreadful Records of Sin

Small Towns, Rural Living, and Dreadful Records of Sin

 

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s story “The Copper Beeches,” Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are riding a train through the countryside when Watson praises the beauty of the scenery, which prompts the following response from Holmes:
     But Holmes shook his head gravely. “Do you know, Watson,” said he, “That it is one of the curses of a mind with a turn like mine that I must look at everything with reference to my own special subject. You look at these scattered houses, and you are impressed by their beauty. I look at them, and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation and of the impunity with which crime may be committed there.”
“Good heavens!” I cried. “Who would associate crime with these dear old homesteads?”
“They always fill me with a certain horror. It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.”
“You horrify me!”       “But the reason is very obvious. The pressure of public opinion can do in the town what the law cannot accomplish. There is no lane so vile that the scream of a tortured child, or the thud of a drunkard’s blow, does not beget sympathy and indignation among the neighbors, and then the whole machinery of justice is ever so close that a word of complaint can set it going, and there is but a step between the crime and the dock. But look at these lonely houses, each in its own fields, filled for the most part with poor ignorant folk who know little of the law. Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser. “Good heavens!” I cried. “Who would associate crime with these dear old homesteads?”
 
Watson rescuing Rucastle from his mastiff

When I first read this passage, Holmes’ observation caused a kind of slippery, creeping recognition, like the fugitive on the nightly news who resembles your next-door-neighbor (or long-lost uncle). When I lived in some of the more seedy sections of cities like Los Angeles or Dublin, the threat of danger was certainly more palpable, more obvious, than during my time spent in quiet towns or wooded glades…but such relatively transparent evil, when obscured by isolation and shared silences, can sometimes fester into something even more sinister, more insidious, than a set of nightly crime stats. Writers like Stephen King have produced entire novels based upon the quiet collusions of evil in remote and isolated places, and stories like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood explore the fear and paranoia of towns like Holcomb, Kansas as if they were characters in of themselves. Which, in a way, place are… And so, which character-place would you want to take your chances with on a lonely night when an ill-wind blows and evil invades the air? The mean streets of a bustling city; the forgotten corners of a forgotten town; the misty moors and shadowed forest lanes—or the weed-free lawns and Neighborhood Watch comfort of suburbia, perhaps? Hmmmm… dreadful record of sin, indeed.